At Long Last: Writer Laura Munson
Laura Munson formed intense affectional bonds with writing early in her life, discovering something unfeigned and true she could depend on, an assurance of love not loved based on approval and an intermediary in which she could place her trust.
After Munson wrote an essay for the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times called “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Published on August 2, 2009, a short version of a full-length memoir addressing a rough patch in her marriage, this starkly-written personal essay became the number-one most read article on the Times’ website. Two days later, she had inked a book contract with Davey Literary & Media.
The Path to a Creative Life
By the time her essay in the New York Times when viral, Laura had completed fourteen novels that stood unpublished and had endured innumerable rejections but her career soon exploded with an abridged version of a memoir that resonated with readers exponentially.
Shortly thereafter, “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness,” was released to exuberant applause and literary kudos, fulfilling Munson’s lifelong dream of sowing the seeds of a creative life.
“I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life,” says Munson. “In college, I realized that I did not want to be an actress or a filmmaker, but I wanted to be a writer. I resisted it at first. But I’ve been processing art my whole life. Creative writing is what I refer to as sitting truly at that intersection of heart and mind and craft all of the time, with the third eye wide open…
“In Boston, I was driving a delivery truck fresh out of college and I had someone ask me if I could look at the future and still be a writer, yet never be published, would I do it? The answer was yes. I was 21 then, and today I’m 54. I’ve got three books that I’m writing right now. I’ve never stopped. Writing a book is a fascination and perhaps an obsession of mine.
“It’s not just that I love to tell stories. Writing is the air that I breathe.”
Indeed, Munson is obsessed, as all good artists are and must be. She needs her work. She couldn’t live without it. The outcast affinity of her work makes her life valuable.
“It’s an obsession, yes.. Writing is my practice, my prayer, my meditation, my way of life, and sometimes my way to life. It’s become more than just writing to simply understand. It’s my compulsion. It comes back to two words: obsession and empathy.”
The Bloodletting of Writing
The use of the word bloodletting to describe the process of writing is not hyperbole. Indeed, sometimes words splatter like speckles of red on the page like a Pollock drip painting. As Ernest Hemingway once unpleasantly noted, his writing was anything but bloodless, for veins needed to be opened. Munson takes the same singular road. In the bloodsport of the craft, rarely is anything withheld in Munson’s work. No doubt her gift has something to do with openness, a tendency Munson depends upon.
“We’ve all got to go through this frustrating and heartbreaking thing called life. We all have to lean into the answers to the same central questions. We all come at those questions in different ways, though. As a writer, I am finding my own way of self-expression within it.”
Munson says that her advice to fledgling or struggling writers is straightforward: write what you know, write from your own perspective. Too many writers typically come across as aloof and isolative, stowed away, internally preoccupied. To achieve success, they feel the need to sidestep others, to seclude themselves. While Munson enjoys occasional intervals of solitude, she understands that she needs to write not only for herself, but to provide relief for others. A self-declared extrovert, she is an antidote to the tortured artist paradigm. She can dive into the psychic depths; she doesn’t get yanked.
“Books and films seem to focus on the most tortured and miserable artists, and that’s the model that we have to study. I think that you could be full of empathy, compassion, and awareness and be sensitive, and also lead a healthy life.”
Montana has played a large part in all of Munson’s process and product, too.
“I’ve spent 30 years in Montana, and there is still something to be said about putting yourself in a place where you are directly on the food chain. We’ve had a sturdy level of snowfall this winter. There was a grizzly bear running around in the backyard this summer. It humbles you to live in a place where you can’t be that self-indulgent. Weather, climate, open space holds us accountable. The quiet living is what keeps me in a place of balance when it comes to that empathy and sensitivity. And it’s better for my muse to live here.”
Montana, says Munson, is protective; it meets her emotional demands. She seeks the natural bounty to gather up experience, to feel alive, stimulated, vitalized, inspired in her home near Whitefish.
“When I take a walk in the woods, something always happens. Writing to me isn’t just writing. Writing is living in a way that helps us find what it is that we have to say, from walking, to taking a bath, to getting on your horse, to sitting on a stump in the woods… In Montana you can be that intention without a lot of distractions. Where I live it’s a huge, vast container to learn the lessons that I’m interested in learning in life, and a quiet place to receive those lessons.”
One of the key factors of life that Munson has learned from her craft is that writing opens up secrets. Even at times when her reality is less than rosy, the writing must remain front and center.
“Some people are afraid of authentic self-expression. We know authentic self-expression as kids. Then, at about age 12, our inner critic is born. When you are 30, 40, or 50, your inner critic knows exactly what to say to break your heart. The inner critic is the scared child who needs to take a nap or a rest. Part of what I do is not just teach people how to write, but teach how to get back to the child who knows how to express themselves in true form, even if it’s a bloody risk, or an inconvenient truth, or a dirty secret.”
Writing requires confrontations with things that we prefer overlooking, not to mention soundproof self-trust, or “bridge building,” within, as Munson explains it.
“It’s self-expression through self-awareness. That means that you are building a bridge to yourself and then building a bridge to your self-expression, either through a thought, or something that’s written or spoken…The act of writing is how we build that bridge to ourselves. It’s all about truth, self-awareness, and building that bridge to ourselves. Writing keeps me in that trajectory of truth-telling and bridge-building to myself, and then eventually to others.”
Following the release of “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness,” Munson toured book stores and literary events for about six years, signing copies with eager alacrity, and speaking about her themes of emotional liberation and self-responsibility. Her follow-up book, this time with Blackstone Publishing, “Willa’s Grove,” a novel about three middle-aged women who come together during a retreat to recognize and affirm their creativity, their fates, and their sense of belonging, took approximately eight years to reach its final printed form.
In March 2020, Munson was in the midst of a robust book tour, traveling to places such as New York and Boston; when COVID-19 shuttered cities and forced her to return to Montana.
“We canceled 38 events. It had been my dream since 1988 to publish a novel and it was fun to revel in that for a little while. But soon I was back to contemplating the writing life in Montana.”
As Kafka once put it, “Nothing alive can be calculated.” In the end some little bit of mystery, some mistiness, always hangs about. In writing, there are ambiguities, unfilled cells in the calculus, uncertainties to deal with. Still, Munson embraces the lack of certitude in the world and deep in herself. She is felicitously juggling several writing projects, freezing those precious moments between reflection and self-projection.
“We all have something that needs to come out of us… Writing is putting the thought to form and becoming more aware of the thought, and then deciding what you want to do with it. Is it a thought that has been infiltrating a dream? Is the thought the reason that you can’t go to sleep? Once the writing gets the thought out, then you could look at it. Is this something that’s still bothering me? Writing will get it out of you and then you can make a conscious decision of what you want to do with it.”
Writing as a means of calming fear and deriving reassurance are directly applicable to Munson’s modus operandi. The world, she says, needs people who can authentically (and therefore fearlessly) present themselves, who aren’t afraid to perceive, who are willing to access writing as a requirement of wholeness of self.
“I believe that writing should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness. Writing adds to the collective consciousness and to the collective need.”